Relatives to visit Wellstone crash site
EVELETH, Minnesota (CNN) -- Some relatives of the victims of the small plane crash that killed Sen. Paul Wellstone and others will visit the crash site Sunday and hold a private memorial service there, officials said.
Investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board will escort about a half-dozen relatives to the wooded, swampy area about two miles from the rural airport where the plane was supposed to land.
It's not known if any relatives of the senator will go to the crash site. Friday night, a local sheriff took one of Wellstone's sons to the scene, and a family representative visited Saturday.
Meanwhile, an airport official and NTSB investigators said Saturday that the plane carrying Wellstone was off its expected landing approach and turning away from a rural airport runway when it crashed Friday morning.
Wellstone, his wife, Sheila, daughter, Marcia, three staff members and two pilots died in the fiery crash. The bodies were recovered Saturday and taken to local funeral homes for examination by the St. Louis County medical examiner.
Investigators: Plane pointing away from airport
Carol Carmody, the acting chairwoman of the NTSB, also said Saturday that the twin-engine, turboprop Raytheon King Air was not equipped with a cockpit voice recorder, as originally believed. The FAA did not require the plane to have a recorder, she said.
Gary Ulman, assistant manager of the Eveleth-Virginia Municipal Airport, where the plane was scheduled to land, said tree damage around the crash site indicated the plane, which should have been landing from the east on an east-west runway, was actually turning away from the airport, traveling from northwest to southeast about 2 miles south of the runway, when it crashed.
"We don't know why they were making a turn," said Ulman, who discovered the crash site. "A normal approach would have been straight in [from the east], and they should have been 2 miles farther north."
However, Ulman said if the plane had missed its initial approach and was circling to return to the airport, it could have been on the path where it was found. The small airport has no control tower.
Carmody said the plane's nose was pointed away from the airport, at a 90-degree angle to the runway, when it crashed. Why the plane was headed in that direction is unknown and will be part of the investigation, she said.
The angle of tree damage showed a descent much steeper than would be expected with a controlled landing, and propeller damage indicates the engines may still have been operating at the time of the crash, she said.
The debris was confined to a relatively small area, about 300 feet by 190 feet, Carmody said. The crash site is in a swampy, heavily wooded area with limited access, complicating the recovery efforts.
"There's evidence of an intense post-crash fire," she said. "The fuselage is destroyed. The cockpit is gone. The left wing is badly burned. The right wing is quite damaged. The tail is about two-thirds intact."
Well-wishers continued to gather Saturday outside Wellstone's campaign headquarters in St. Paul, bringing flowers and signs for a makeshift memorial to the outspoken liberal lauded as a "gloriously defiant" champion of the little guy.
Party considers possible replacement
Mike Erlandson, the chairman of the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party, as the Democratic party is known in Minnesota, said Saturday that no official announcements will be made about selecting a possible replacement for Wellstone in the November 5 election until after families have had time to decide on funeral arrangements.
Under state law, Democrats have until Friday to replace Wellstone on the ballot. He was locked in a tight re-election battle with Republican Norm Coleman, the former mayor of St. Paul.
Erlandson said he expects to call a meeting of the state central committee, which has about 1,000 delegates, to make a final decision.
"We know that he would like us to continue with the fight," Erlandson said.
CNN has learned that Democratic officials have approached former Vice President Walter Mondale, who represented Minnesota in the Senate from 1964-1976, about taking Wellstone's place on the ballot. Mondale has made no comment on a possible run but has not ruled it out.
At the time of the crash, the Wellstones were on their way to attend the funeral of the father of a state representative, then travel on to Duluth for a campaign event.
Ulman said a radio call was made from the plane -- carrying the Wellstones, three campaign aides and two pilots -- when it was 7 miles from the airport, announcing its approach. Everything appeared normal, and the pilot activated the runway lights, which is the usual procedure, he said.
When the pilot didn't call regional air traffic controllers in Duluth after landing, which is the normal procedure, Ulman went up in an airplane to see if he could find the plane. He detected blue smoke about 2 miles southeast of the airport, off the usual approach path.
"I flew down to it, saw the tail of the airplane. I saw the main body section on fire," he said.
At the time of the crash, visibility was about 2 miles, with snow showers and a cloud ceiling of about 700 feet, he said. Once planes descend to land at Eveleth, they cannot be tracked by radar because the nearest radar station is at Duluth, 45 miles away, he said.
Wellstone, 58, an outspoken liberal, was considered among the Democrats' most vulnerable incumbents in the mid-term election. Republicans hoped to pick up the seat in their quest to regain control of the Senate, which Democrats now hold by a single vote. President Bush was in the state recently, stumping for Coleman.
With Wellstone's seat vacant, Democrats and Republicans both hold 49 seats, with the remaining seat held by independent Sen. James Jeffords of Vermont, who now caucuses with the Democrats after leaving the GOP last year.
Gov. Jesse Ventura can appoint a replacement for Wellstone to serve for the next 10 days, until the election. At that point, whoever wins the Senate seat will take office immediately.
Ventura met with staff members and legal advisers Saturday. His spokesman, John Wodele, said no decision was made on whether to appoint a replacement for Wellstone and that Ventura wanted to "keep his options open."
Ventura did say Friday that he would not appoint himself to the seat.
It is unclear whether Democrats could opt to leave Wellstone's name on the ballot. Erlandson said party officials are still discussing that with their lawyers.
There is recent precedent for continuing with a deceased candidate. Two years ago, when the Democratic Senate candidate in Missouri, Gov. Mel Carnahan, died in a plane crash shortly before the election, party officials left his name on the ballot, with the understanding that his wife, Jean, would be appointed to replace him.
Buoyed by a wave of sympathy, he defeated then-Sen. John Ashcroft, now the U.S. attorney general, and his widow took the seat.
However, in that case, Democrats held the governorship, controlling the appointment process, while Ventura is a political independent. He is not running for re-election, and a new governor will be selected November 5.
Replacing Wellstone with Mondale would return a storied Minnesota political name to the ballot, although the former vice president has not run for statewide office in 30 years.
Mondale, 74, was elected vice president on a ticket with Jimmy Carter in 1976. He went on to become the Democratic nominee for president in 1984, losing in a landslide to Ronald Reagan, and he also served as U.S. ambassador to Japan during the Clinton administration.
"I have the utmost respect for the former vice president," said Erlandson, who said he has not discussed with Mondale the possibility of replacing Wellstone. "He's a wonderful statesman."